I shouldn’t have to explain Review to you—in a just world, the Andy Daly-starring Comedy Central series, whose final season begins tonight at 10 p.m. EST, would be a household name, not just a cult hit. A dark and deranged mockumentary-style comedy, the show follows Forrest MacNeil (Daly), a critic of life who pursues whatever experiences (fictional) viewers submit to him, no matter how dangerous or bizarre, in order to review them. Fittingly, Review is one of the most critically beloved shows on television, but it won’t be for much longer—its third season will be its last. The beauty and tragedy of this is that season three—or at least the first two episodes made available to we Review reviewers—is as bruising and brilliant as anything Daly and company have yet put on the air.
To understand where Review is now, it’s best if we back up a bit. Season two concluded with Forrest throwing himself and his producer Grant (James Urbaniak) off a bridge, after the life reviewer became convinced that his colleague, and therefore his own show as a whole, was out to get him. The tension between these two men stands in for that of the entire series: Forrest, believing himself to be an invaluable servant of the universal pursuit of human understanding, sacrifices everything, operating based on a deep-seated dedication to his and his show’s principles; Grant, a manipulative Machiavellian villain hiding in plain sight, simply wants Forrest to make great television, whatever the cost. The push and pull between Review’s intellectual depth, which is all Forrest sees, and its frequently absurd spectacle, which is all Grant wants to see, is what makes it so singular.
The beginning of the show’s last season intrigues as handily as it entertains. Forrest juggles patently ridiculous reviews, consuming moldy, months-old Mexican fast food, adopting a bearded dragon named Beyonce and doing his level best to experience life as Hellen Keller, all the while blaming himself for his and Grant’s fall from the bridge, and committing himself more wholeheartedly than ever to his work. There’s another shoe here, just waiting to drop, but in the meantime, Review is as sinfully funny as ever. Daly continues to go for broke in his performance as Forrest, selling everything from his frighteningly blithe fervor for his work, to his violent illness after force-feeding himself a Locorito in season premiere “Locorito / Pet Euthanasia / Dream,” to his visceral sorrow after the death of his pet reptile, all with his characteristic sincerity and pitch-perfect comic sensibility. These reviews are balanced on a razor’s edge, delighting and diverting us with ridiculousness even as we await Forrest’s next fall.
That Review can maintain such a level of suspense with an utterly minimal deployment of quote unquote plot is a testament to its deft storytelling, which, though frequently farcical, is always, always thoughtful and deliberate. The show’s writing is so intelligent that it often rebels against its own constraints, pushing back against its very framework: Episode two of season three, titled “Co-Host / Ass-Slap / Hellen Keller / Forgiveness,” finds Forrest assuming the role of his co-host, A.J. Gibbs (Megan Stevens), whose moral objection to the relatively benign review she is given (“Slapping a Stranger’s Ass”) casts Forrest’s fanaticism into sharp relief. “Who cares how many stars slapping a stranger’s ass would get?” asks A.J., to which a sputtering Forrest replies, “Who cares?! How many stars it would—that’s the whole point of it!” It’s unthinkable to Forrest that A.J. would sidestep any kind of unpleasantness at the show’s expense. There is as much tragedy as comedy in Review’s DNA—if Forrest’s fate is to be destroyed by his own show, it was his own hubris that made it so.
Despite all of Review’s bleakness, there are hints of hope here at the outset of season three—reasons to believe Forrest’s final bow will be a happy one. Forrest’s love of his ex-wife, Suzanne (Jessica St. Clair), persists, no matter how often she shuns him; while reviewing “Making Your Dream Come True”—which Forrest takes far too literally, opting to sleep, record and then reenact an actual dream—the life critic dreams of his beloved 27 nights in a row, a shockingly sweet detail artfully obscured by all its surrounding foolishness. Whether Forrest is ultimately able to salvage his marriage or not, the point is that we care—that we are emotionally invested in his pursuit of happiness, in spite of all the horrible things we have watched him do in the name of his television show. Review’s big joke is that Forrest thinks he’s enlightening us as to the human experience—it’s funny because it’s true.
Scott Russell is Paste’s news editor and resident Review reviewer. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.